Category Archives: China-U.S.

Trump’s Withdrawal From TPP Opens Opportunity For China

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement opens up space for China to assume leadership of the development of trade and investment within the region.

Its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) goes from being a poor second choice to virtually the only game in town. It limitation is that it encompasses Northeast and Southeast Asia along with Australasia, but not the Americas, the carrot that the TPP offered.

However, without the participation of the United States, the TTP is left floundering, for all the talk from quarters such as Australia that something can be salvaged. That would take several years at the very least.

RCEP would be substantial, accounting for about one-third of global GDP and one-half of the world’s population. It would incorporate all the Asian countries that had signed up for TPP plus TTP waiverers, such as Indonesia, and excluded, such India (not forgetting China itself, of course).

RCEP is considerably less liberalising of trade than TTP, however. The scope for exemptions on awkward sticking points is also greater, which may make reaching an eventually agreement easier, though.

Critically different from the TPP, labour, environmental issues are excluded form the RCEP negotiations, as is the role of state-owned enterprises.

RCEP’s primary focus is the trade in manufactures, although trade in services and investments will be discussed as one at India’s insistence. India is competitive in trade in services though less so in manufacturing and especially light manufacturing. It does not want trade in manufactures to be given priority over trade in services and investment, where its companies are competitive.

Intellectual property rights are also a point of contention. Tokyo and Seoul want high levels of IP protection, particularly for their pharmaceutical sectors, and akin to those proposed by the TPP, whereas poorer countries in the region want access to cheap medicines.

Beijing, however, may have both a short and a long game to play. The high standards proposed under TPP for intellectual property protections and the liberalisation of trade in services may well eventually suit Beijing as it gets more success in rebalancing its economy as a more services-oriented and innovate one.

To that end, it may well be prepared to keep the TPP negotiations lingering on should they be of future use. In the meantime, though, Beijing will seize the initiative that Washington has let drop.

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Beijing’s Devaluation Dilemma

 

100 yuan notes

THE CLOCK IS ticking down on the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump and thus on Beijing’s decision about if and how to devalue the renminbi. China is caught between an exodus of capital and whatever hawkish policies against it that a Trump administration could bring.

The renminbi fell 7% against the US dollar in 2016, in its biggest fall since 1994. Most of the fall occurred in the fourth quarter as the US Federal Reserve started to raise interest rates.

The case for a one-off step devaluation is that it would, assuming it was large enough, staunch the outflows, and end the need to run down the foreign-exchange reserves to defend the currency. The case against is that Chinese companies with dollar-denominated debt could be put in peril, importers would face a squeeze on margins and Trump’s strident accusations of China being a currency manipulator to support its exporters by undervaluing the renminbi would gain more credence.

Also, a Chinese devaluation could set off a round of competitive devaluations by emerging economies that would rock the world economy. There is ‘previous’ in this regard. Beijing’s unexpected devaluation in August 2015 caused global shockwaves.

At the same time, China’s foreign exchange reserves, being used, regardless of Trump’s claims, to prop up the currency through market intervention, are being eroded. While comfortably large at more than $3 trillion, even they cannot be run down indefinitely. The People’s Bank of China has already used $1 trillion of the reserves to defend the currency, taking them in December to their lowest level in six years.

And what probably matters more is investor sentiment. To that end the central bank earlier this month orchestrated liquidity squeeze in the offshore market in Hong Kong, to make it more expensive to bet against the renminbi, a signal intended equally to be read in the onshore market.

As the devaluation debate rages among policymakers, Beijing has been putting administrative measures in place to reduce the outflows. A stop has been put to the dodge of using investment-linked insurance policies in Hong Kong both to move savings overseas and switch into dollars. The level at which banks are now required to report all yuan-denominated cash transactions has been lowered to 50,000 yuan from 200,000 yuan.

The individual annual quota of $50,000 in foreign currency is unchanged, but citizens are being asked for more detailed information about why they need the cash;  tourism, business travel and medical care and education overseas is looked on favourable, but not purchases of overseas property and financial assets.

Similarly, a closer eye is being kept on Chinese firms foreign direct investment, especially M&A involving real estate, hotels and cinemas. Bitcoin exchanges, which account for 95% of global trading in the crypto-currency, are being leant on to stop a backdoor way to cash out of the yuan. There is even speculation about a crackdown on the excessive transfer fees Chinese football clubs are paying to bring in foreign stars.

In this environment, state-owned enterprises are likely to be leant on to repatriate foreign currency earnings held offshore while foreign firms will find it harder to repatriate their profits.

All of this flies in the face of policies to internationalise the currency that have been persued for some time, and whose continuance was implicit in the IMF’s adding of the renminbi to its basket for Special Drawing Rights last October.

The other conventional prop for a currency is higher domestic interest rates. However, with more than 1 trillion yuan of corporate bonds due to mature every month from now until the third quarter of this year, higher rates would impose a massive refinancing burden on companies.

Also, it is far from clear how much strain higher rates would put on the shadow banking system and what the spillover would be to the rest of the financial system, but the sense is that it is a significant risk.

That leaves devaluation — gradually or in a one-step change — as the most likely option.

In a sense, that is inevitable. Dollar strength globally is probably a bigger factor than renminbi weakness. Last month, however, that did not prevent Trump tweeting, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency?” Nor is it likely to do so again.

Financial policymaking is difficult at the best of times, never more so than at a time of unpredictability — and with a clock ticking.

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Heading For The Deep Blue Yonder

The aircraft carrier Liaoning seen in the East China Sea

THE PLA-NAVY’S aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (above), has sailed for the Western Pacific on what state media say is a routine naval exercise. The trip marks the first time it has ventured into ‘blue water’.

Japan’s defence ministry noted that the carrier and seven other warships had sailed from the East China Sea making passage between Okinawa and Miyako islands on Saturday headed for the Philippines Sea. Taiwan’s counterpart said on Monday that the carrier had entered the South China Sea after passing south of the island, though it counted two fewer vessels than the Japanese (it may not be counting supply ships; a carrier battle group usually comprises eight vessels).

The symbolism of the sailing is that the Liaoning has ‘broken through’ the ‘first island chain’ — the first major archipelagos out from the East Asian littoral, stretching from the Kamchatka peninsula in the north to the Malay peninsula in the south-west and within which China believes the United States wants to keep its force projection penned.

This trip may have been long planned to come just as US President-elect Donald Trump prepared to take over from Barack Obama, but the timing will have added piquancy given Trump’s ratcheting up of tensions in past weeks, including suggestions that his administration might abandon the One China policy.

Last month, Beijing declared the Liaoning ‘combat-ready’ and the warship conducted its first live-fire drills earlier this month in the Bohai Sea. Before heading out to the Pacific, Liaoning was carrying out combat-readiness air drills in the East China Sea including aerial refuelling of its J-15 fighters.

This trip (or the next one) may be intended to get the Liaoning to the ‘second island chain’ (Guam, Mariana Islands and Iwo Jima) to test the carrier group’s long-range mission capabilities, which will be essential to changing the strategic naval balance of power in the Western Pacific (eventually).

The nationalist-minded state newspaper, the Global Times, lays out the long-term course:

The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules.

That is still some day off, but no longer never.

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Industrial Policy’s Global Return

INDUSTRIAL POLICY HAS long been a strong pillar of China’s economic agenda but a pariah in the Anglo-Saxon economies of the West.

It made a return there last August when the UK’s new Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision of a post-Brexit state-boosted industrial renaissance some three decades after the UK’s previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had killed it off.

Now, in the United States, President-elect Donald Trump is picking up the torch with the creation of a White House National Trade Council to facilitate industrial policy. Peter Navarro, a University of California economist who is a sceptic of trade with China, is its proposed head.

This suggests that a more populist approach to trade and manufacturing is in the offing from the Trump administration. US trade policy will more likely be used to promote domestic production and job creation, particularly in infrastructure and defence, two areas where ‘Buy American, Hire American” is easiest to implement.

That would represent a significant change from international trade as a foreign policy tool that it was under the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations.

It remains to be seen what this means in practice, and more importantly, where the new council fits into a Washington power structure that has to accommodate on economic matters the National Economic Council, the National Security Council, the Treasury, the U.S. trade representative and the commerce department.

Beijing, already sideswiped by Trump’s election win, will take its time to pick that apart.  Trump’s proposed commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, the soon to be octogenarian investor who made his billions from corporate restructuring of distressed companies, is this Bystander’s pick to emerge as the key figure among that group. But Navarro’s appointment will not offer Beijing much cheer.

Navarro is also an advocate of the theory, controversial among economists, that trade deficits are a drag on growth. The United States ran a $366 billion merchandise trade deficit with China last year.

This Bystander will be watching carefully for signs of the Trump administration seeking to implement a ‘border tax’. This is taxation regime within corporate tax that Navarro and Ross have argued is needed to offset what they say is the hurt other countries’ domestic tax systems impose on US exports, say through the imposition of value-added-taxes that have no equivalent in the United States.

In short, they argued that a 20% border tax could eliminate the overall US trade deficit (if not all of the one with China). Imports would become 20% more expensive to cover the new corporate tax liability while exports, which would be exempt, would be roughly 12% cheaper because of the tax savings exporters would get.

The net effect of what in effect would be an across the board import tariff of 20% and an export subsidy of 12% would be equivalent to a 15% change in the value of the dollar.

Given that the United States was a $482 billion export market for China last year, that would give a very different hue to the China-US trade relationship. Not surprisingly, talk of a coming China-US trade war is in the air in both countries.

That may be of less import to China than once might have been the case now that it is rebalancing its economy away from cheap-export-led growth and towards domestic consumption, and that trade in services is becoming as important as trade in goods.

Nonetheless, this is probably not a moment to be sanguine about the prospects and the negative impact on China’s growth of a border tax could be material, and felt far wider than in China alone.

However, the new battle lines between Beijing and Washington may be drawn up over national champions as both countries seek to dominate the new industries that will shape the coming global economy. And that will come down to which nation will be better at picking winners — the perennial Achilles Heel of industrial policy.

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Surprise Seizure In South China Sea

THE SEIZING OF a US Navy underwater drone by the PLA-Navy points to the potential for a small incident to take on greater import as Sino-American relations become more uncertain ahead of Donald Trump assuming the US presidency.

The drone was conducting a military oceanographic survey to map underwater channels in what the US claims are open waters some 160 kilometres off the Philippines, but China considers to be its own.

The incident comes hard on the heels of the publication of satellite photographs showing anti-aircraft batteries on seven of China’s artificial islands in the South China Seas and US President-elect Donald Trump’s questioning of Washington’s commitment to the ‘One China’ policy and his taking of a telephone call earlier from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

Having had the unpredictability card played against it, Beijing may be countering in kind.

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Trump Ups The Ante, But What Is The Game?

WHAT HAD SEEMED to be a passing storm in a teacup has blown up into a tempest.

Taking a telephone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, was one thing, especially when the US president-elect’s entourage subsequently played down the potential consequences. It did not signal a change of US policy towards China, they insisted.

But then the man himself upped the ante. He suggested that unless Beijing makes concessions on trade, America will consider abandoning the One China policy, the foundation of Sino-American relations since 1979 and which has allowed the world’s sole superpower to develop a working relationship with the world’s aspirant one.

What had been a restrained response on Beijing’s part hitherto, interrupted into anger, albeit channelled through the state-run Global Times, a publication that never misses the opportunity to blow hard about Chinese nationalism.

It has a reason, though, to suspect that there is an organised campaign to restore Taiwan’s a diplomatic status in the United States. Beyond the telephone call from Tsai, John Bolton, likely to be Trump’s assistant Secretary of State, is known as a China hawk, especially over the issue of Taiwan. Our man in New York sends word that Trump and Bolton met shortly before Trump dropped his hint that the One China policy was in jeopardy.

The extent to which Trump understands the ramifications of the United States abandoning the one China policy is unclear. Less so his advisers. They will know that Taiwan is a red line for Beijing. Trump, on the other hand, possibly regards his comments as no more than an opening bid in a trade negotiation.

In this scenario, Taiwan is no more than a bargaining chip. Beijing, however, sees Taiwan as a first domino that must not be allowed to fall.

Its default position is that the Americans are playing a long game, just as it would. If Taiwan goes, then Hong Kong might also be at risk, especially as there would be support from within the former British colony for any advocacy of Hong Kong independence.

More importantly, Tibet might be next; then possibly Xinjiang. America, this theory goes, is trying to pick apart China one province at a time and thus must be resisted from the outset.

What, though, can Beijing do, and especially against a man who isn’t yet president?

Its easiest option would be to stop supporting the yuan, making Chinese imports into the United States cheaper. That would skewer Trump’s accusations that China is a currency manipulator, at least in the eyes of economists, if not, perhaps, in those of the blue-collar Americans who supported him, in large numbers in the rust belt, in the election campaign.

It could also make life a lot harder in China for those American direct investors, particularly high-tech companies, who manufacture there to export back to the United States or to pursue the market share in China itself of which they dream.  China could also go after big-ticket US exporters to China, such as Boeing, by cancelling orders.

The hope that would be on both scores that US companies would apply pressure on Trump at home not to endanger the trade and investment relationship with China by insisting one following the reckless path of abandoning One China policy.

What Beijing has to do first, however, is to figure out Trump’s true intentions. That may be the hardest part of all.

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Donald Trump, Taiwan And Interesting Times

US President-elect Donald Trump. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Licenced under Creative Commons

NO ONE CAN accuse the president-elect of United States, Donald Trump (above), of hiding his antagonism towards China when he was on the campaign trail. He bluntly accused Beijing of “stealing” American jobs and manipulating its currency and was critical of it for “militarising” the South China Sea.

His prospective administration is packed with China hawks who believe that the Asia Pivot policy pursued by President Barack Obama has been a failure and prompted Chinese aggression in the East and South China Seas.

However, few expected the first point of confrontation between the forthcoming Trump administration and China to be over to Taiwan. By agreeing to take a telephone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, now seen as the result of a well-connected Taiwanese lobbying campaign in Washington, Trump drove a coach and horses through the basic tenant of Sino-American relations since 1979 when the United States broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and acknowledged ‘One China’.

In doing so, he unexpectedly put Beijing on the back foot. Many had thought Beijing would test the new president once he took office in January. But Trump has struck preemptively.

Beijing has reacted relatively tamely. This may be a sign that it has been discombobulated by the potential for Trump to be unpredictable. It is likely to be deeply distrustful of the Trump administration as a result.

Unpredictability may become a hallmark of the Trump administration, as it was in his campaign. If so, that may prove as big a challenge to Beijing’s sometimes ponderous policymaking as the substance of Trump’s complaints against it.

We do live in interesting times.

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